David Mehler

Some thoughts on the recent tragedy during the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis

If a chess player is caught cheating, every notable accomplishment that follows is viewed with suspicion. The recent controversy during Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis serves as a reminder to our students that nothing good comes from dishonesty. If Hans Niemann had never been caught cheating before, his win over Magnus Carlsen would have been seen as a magnificent performance, perhaps a once-in-a lifetime accomplishment. That he has admitted cheating repeatedly in his young life, however, has caused this result to be viewed more skeptically.

Many prominent figures in the chess world have weighed in on the likelihood or lack thereof that Niemann broke any rules during the game in question.  This much is certain: in the third round of the annual elite Sinquefield Cup round-robin event, Niemann, the lowest-rated player in the tournament, defeated Carlsen, the long-time World Champion and highest-rated player.  The day after the loss, Carlsen withdrew from the tournament, the first time in his career he has pulled out in the middle of an elite event.  Carlsen’s only public explanation for the withdrawal was an enigmatic Twitter post that was viewed by many as a possible allegation that Niemann had received some form of outside assistance in the game the day before.

At the present moment, any evidence of foul play during that game is subjective and inconclusive.  What has truly amplified the contention is Niemann’s self-confessed history of cheating in online games, some as recently as three years ago.

Our experience shows that most people enjoy playing with strong players but nobody likes playing without confidence that the game will be played fairly. If players don’t follow the same rules, the game is no fun. Trash-talking diminishes the competition, as distracting or annoying an opponent is not supposed to be part of chess. Trying to get away with a touch-move violation, taking a move back, moving an opponent’s piece, or using a computer during a game, all are things that might tempt a player, but players of character resist those thoughts.

There is no game, and there is no tournament, so important that it is worth damaging your reputation or honor. Once either is lost it can take a long and miserable time to get it back.

Meet the Chess Center Team: David Mehler, Founder/President/Teacher

David MehlerThe seeds of my love of teaching were planted in college — not because I had inspirational professors, but through my experiences as a founder of the Pail & Shovel Party. (Google it. I was gone by the time the flamingos landed and the Statue of Liberty arrived, but was involved with the conceptual stage.) Pail & Shovel taught me that anything can be turned into entertainment, entertainment holds people’s attention, and through that attention, education takes place.

During the lead-up to the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match I first became a chess teacher. I was a decent player devoid of teaching experience but after a while found ways to impart the rules and strategy of the game to kids who quickly passed me in skill.

After college, I became a high school classroom teacher with classes in social studies and math. I was the fun teacher in a conservative Catholic school, but always had the goal of getting students to think. When struggling students came to me for additional help, I taught them to play chess and watched as their intellectual self-confidence rose. Inner-city teens who had heard throughout their lifetimes that they would not be able to succeed academically learned that was a lie. If they could play chess, they could do math and understand literature.

During my practice of law, I brought chess to underserved schools, working to convince small children that there was magic in the pieces of plastic they moved around the square board. As they assimilated abstract concepts, their smiles of understanding were more satisfying than favorable verdicts in courtrooms.

When then-World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov asked me to teach chess for a couple of weeks to children who lived in public housing, that was the start of something quite wonderful. The Washington Post editorial noting the value of chess garnered the attention of people who helped create what has become the U.S. Chess Center. I stopped taking new legal clients and never looked back.